Robert Johnson's work, aspiration have changed the face of TV today Building a Dream

January 07, 1995|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- Were he not the founder of the nation's largest black-owned television network and a self-made multi-millionaire, Robert L. Johnson Jr.'s vision of a media empire anchored by a pro basketball team might be easy to dismiss.

But this is the man who launched Black Entertainment Television 15 years ago with borrowed money and just two hours of programming a week and turned it into a cable-television network that reaches nearly 40 million viewers and earns about $15 million a year in profits.

So people listen as the 48-year-old broadcasting baron discusses his latest dream: to own the Washington Bullets and watch them play in a downtown arena before crowds studded with the power players of this town. He imagines the games being broadcast around the country, heck, around the world, on BET.

But there is this: Mr. Johnson does not own the Bullets. The team is not for sale. And while there is a downtown arena in the works, it is going to be built by Abe Pollin, owner of both the Bullets and the Capitals hockey team.

That does not give Mr. Johnson much of an angle since Mr. Pollin is also a very rich man and has said nothing about needing help to finance his $180 million arena.

But, then, nobody expected Mr. Johnson to become one of the most powerful figures in the black entertainment world when he was growing up as the ninth of 10 children in a working class, church-going family in Freeport, Ill.

Both his parents were factory workers, and from their example Mr. Johnson developed a healthy appetite for work. As a teen-ager and college student, he mowed lawns and weeded gardens; he erected tents and scrubbed toilets at the local fair; and he cleaned the assembly line floor at the local battery factory.

A streak of independence

But while he worked, he always harbored an entrepreneurial spirit and displayed a streak of independence that sometimes got him into trouble.

He was fired from his job at the battery factory because he did not see the logic of constantly cleaning the assembly line floor. He preferred to do it "in stages," although he made sure the floor was clean when his shift ended.

"The foreman did not like that and told me I had to leave the job that Friday," Mr. Johnson recalls. "I said 'no. Today is my last day.' The people in the factory were saying 'that boy thinks he's something because he's going to college. He'll need this factory one day.' "

Little did they know, Mr. Johnson had bigger dreams.

As a child, he wanted to be a fighter pilot, an idea he got from reading comic books. But his mother always saw him as a businessman, even after his paper route went belly up because Mr. Johnson did not like delivering newspapers through the harsh Illinois winter.

Later, he decided he wanted to be a diplomat -- a notion that still appeals to him.

"I always had a fascination with history," he says. "I think my interest in diplomacy grew from that."

Using a combination of government loan programs, he attended the University of Illinois, where he met his wife, Sheila, now a BET vice president. He went on to graduate school at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Upon graduation in 1972, he came to Washington, the place to be for an aspiring ambassador.

A diplomat-in-waiting?

He already possessed many of the traits of a good diplomat: He was handsome and elegant, engaging but persistent. Those attributes later would be integral to his business success.

Once here, Mr. Johnson worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Washington Urban League, a D.C. city councilman and then Del. Walter Fauntroy, D.C.'s delegate to Congress.

He became a cable television lobbyist, a job that offered him the connections and know-how he needed to launch BET, the nation's only cable television network targeting black viewers.

Now, Mr. Johnson is building an entertainment empire poised to become what he calls black America's "pre-eminent" brand name.

Despite offering a mostly uninspiring mix of music videos, infomercials and discarded network sitcoms, the company became profitable within six years of its launch -- an impressive achievement by cable-TV standards. In the 1980s, Mr. Johnson also won the District's cable television franchise with the help of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., for whom Mr. Johnson has been a strong political supporter.

In 1991, BET was offered for public sale, becoming the first black-controlled firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The initial stock sale rocketed Mr. Johnson's personal worth to the neighborhood of $100 million. It also gave BET cash to upgrade its production facilities and expand into other businesses.

BET is putting the finishing touches on a gleaming $26 million media campus that includes a new office building, a huge studio and an already-operating broadcast facility in Northeast Washington.

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